Signal & Noise: A Novel

Griesemer, John

Published by Picador
ISBN 10: 0312300824 / ISBN 13: 9780312300821
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Synopsis: Signal & Noise is the epic page-turning story of the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable, and the men and women who are caught in its monumental tide. It is also a novel about the collision of worlds seen and unseen: the present and the future; the living and the dead; the real and the imagined.

On a wet London morning in 1857, American engineer Chester Ludlow arrives on the muddy banks of the Isle of Dogs to witness the launch of the largest steamship ever built, the Great Eastern. Also amidst the tumultuous throng is Jack Trace, a lonely bachelor and sketch artist hoping to make his name as an illustrator and journalist in the hurly burly of Fleet Street. Other witnesses include a drunken German by the name of Marx; the child who will christen the massive vessel by the wrong name; and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the ship’s apoplectic and dwarfish architect who will soon die in ignominy. As chief engineer for the Atlantic Cable Company, the charismatic Chester enters the orbit of business and showmanship embodied by J. Beaumol Spude, the bombastic Western beef magnate who will mastermind the funding of the project; Joachim Lindt, creator of the Phantasmagorium, an animated tableaux vivant; and his beautiful wife, the musician Katerina Lindt. Drawn by the demands and adventure of creating the first transoceanic telegraph, Chester leaves behind his fragile wife, Franny, at the family estate of Willing Mind in Maine.

Abandoned and still mourning the accidental death of their four-year-old daughter, Franny finds solace in the company of Chester’s troubled brother, Otis, who introduces her to the mysteries of the world of spiritualism just as séancing is becoming all the rage in the jittery times leading up to the Civil War. As Chester achieves renown as the glamorous engineer of the trans-Atlantic project, Franny, desperate to contact her dead child, becomes the preeminent spirit conjuror of a war-torn America.

Review: Many readers will find it difficult to believe that the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable in the 1860s can be a riveting subject for a novel. But John Griesemer's Signal & Noise is also a story of adultery, spiritualism, madness, and the Civil War: a vertiginous combination that beautifully evokes the contradictions of the mid-Victorian period. The world Griesemer describes ranges from New England drawing rooms to scientific meetings to the stench of the Thames at low-tide. He is good with sensory details (smells and textures, especially), and likes to linger in places that a Victorian novelist would have rushed past without mentioning. Almost nothing, even the tap-tap of telegraph signals, moves quickly in this novel, and the patient reader will be rewarded with gorgeous and unexpectedly moving set-pieces that remind one of the time it would have taken, each morning, just to fasten a corset or button a child's boot. Despite a slow beginning, crowded with characters of unequal interest, Signal & Noise turns into a page-turner, its several story-lines neatly dovetailing and continuing to surprise and delight, long after we have (perhaps, perhaps not) given up hope in that elusive copper connection between continents. --Regina Marler

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Title: Signal & Noise: A Novel
Publisher: Picador
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Very Good

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John Griesemer
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Published by Picador (2003)
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